As a medical scribe at Olympia Orthopaedic Associates (OlyOrtho), Alisha Schaefer had little interaction with patients, remaining mostly in the background during medical appointments. Starting in June, however, she’ll work directly with clients in her new role as a Medical Assistant (MA). Schaefer completed her MA training through the company’s new tuition reimbursement program, which funds professional development and education for qualified staff members. “I’m excited about being able to work with our patients one on one,” Schaefer says.

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OlyOrtho CEO Ben Shah hopes other medical groups follow the company’s lead and create their own tuition reimbursement programs. Photo courtesy: Olympia Orthopaedic Associates

According to CEO Ben Shah, the program was born in part out of necessity due to a county-wide shortage of MAs. “We have a shortage of Medical Assistants (MAs) in the county, and it’s been a struggle,” he explains. “With all the costs of recruiting, why not find good, dedicated employees who want to further their careers and give them an opportunity? We opened it up to our staff and had people apply.”

Schaefer and Michelle Ziegler, formed the first cohort to complete the 10-month MA certification course, with OlyOrtho’s partners providing tuition reimbursement of approximately $23,000 per participant. “It makes it possible for me to afford school right now,” Schaefer  says. “With COVID and everything that’s been happening, it’s been hard to put aside tuition money, and this was something I couldn’t have done on my own.”

Currently, the two are completing externships and will earn their certifications in June. As part of the agreement, they have signed on to stay with OlyOrtho for a prescribed period after completing their certification. Knowing that her employers have invested in her inspires loyalty. “I want to work for a company that supports me,” she says. “It makes me excited about staying and helping them grow.”

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Alisha Schaefer, pictured here with Dr. Gregory Byrd, is wrapping up her training to become a Medical Assistant through the Tuition Reimbursement Program. Photo courtesy: Olympia Orthopaedic Associates

Dr. Gregory Byrd was one of the driving forces behind the program’s launch and is a strong advocate of personal and professional development. He believes that helping employees maximize their potential benefits everyone, whether they ultimately stay with the company or move on. “We try to find opportunities to help people with growth,” he says. “Alisha is a valued employee, and we want to help her excel. What started this conversation was a desire to support employees to achieve the most they can while filling a need in our organization and the community.”

Once OlyOrtho’s partners had agreed to back the program, the next challenge was deciding how to structure it. “There wasn’t really a model for how to create it,” says Shah. “We did our best to make sure we were following the tax code and consulted experts in those areas but otherwise we thought about the best way to do it. We learned a lot so as the program grows, we’ll be more prepared.”

Aside from continuing tuition reimbursement for the MA program, the company has plans to expand it into other areas that require some technical skills and training. Potentials include support for Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) to become Registered Nurses (RNs) or funding to develop more scrub technicians. “We’re balancing how to help the greatest number of people with the needs we have,” says Shah. “Our owners were incredibly generous in giving us a budget to work with this year that will allow us to help probably 10 times the number of employees we did in the past year.”

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Mickey, center, will also be a certified Medical Assistant by June thanks to the program. Photo courtesy: Olympia Orthopaedic Associates

Breaking new ground is not unusual for OlyOrtho. The company is known as an industry leader in surgical practice; they were the first in Washington State to begin performing outpatient joint surgeries and the first surgery center to embrace the use of MAKO robots for total joint replacements. As they pioneer the tuition reimbursement model, Byrd would like to see other medical providers in the region follow suit.

“Ultimately, investing in our employees and investing in our community is a good solution,” he says. “It’s a win for everybody to create more trained medical personnel in our region. I hope others look at this and say, ‘That’s a great idea. We should do that too.’”

Schaefer agrees. “This program helps everyone,” she says. “There’s a staff shortage in the medical field, and the company knows they have an employee that already enjoys working here and knows the patients. Paying for tuition supports us as staff members and fills a role that’s needed, so it’s mutually beneficial.”

Learn more by visiting the Olympia Orthopaedic Associates website or calling 360.570.3460.


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